Interview: Susan Schultz (Tinfish Press)

Interview with Susan Schultz of Tinfish

[Diana Arterian & Emily Kiernan]

1. What do you think was the hardest lesson you have learned since entering the world of publishing? The most important (if they are different)?

The hardest lesson over the longest time has been that small press publishing exists both inside and outside of the regular economy. Publishing and distribution cost real money. And yet poetry books do not, as a rule, sell well (as in many copies). So, on the one hand, you’re engaged in a metaphorical economy (of cultural capital), while on the other hand you need to make enough money to keep going.

The most important lesson is that there is a great need for small press publishing. Tinfish and similar publishers bring out books, chaps, and journal issues that no larger press would touch. And yet there is a need for the work we publish, in classrooms, among groups of poets, in communities around the world.

2. Where do you find your greatest sources of inspiration — be it film, other presses, the world around you?

As an editor and publisher, I find inspiration these days in the classroom. I’ve published work by a number of my students over the years. I also find that teaching the work I publish makes it worthwhile; in some sense I am publishing books that I would like to teach, that my students need (or so I think), that will inspire them to write their own poems.

3. How much do you involve your writers in the creative process of these chapbooks?

We give our designers creative control over the work, mostly because we can’t pay them otherwise. So they get work for their portfolio, something for their Cvs. Most of them are young, so it does help them out. So the writers have less input than they might with another press.

4. Do you believe there is a specific aesthetic in the writing you publish? If so, how would you define it?

I call it “experimental poetry from the Pacific,” but what that means to mean is that the work is engaged in issues of language, colonialism, education, development, within the large space of the Pacific Ocean. I use the word “experiment” rather loosely, however, because I like to give myself room to “cheat.” But I’d say I’m most drawn to work that is as much about language as it is in language(s). We publish a lot of bilingual work, as well.

5. I’m sure you get this all the time — but why devote yourself to chapbook publishing? What was the path that led you there?

To the extent that we do devote ourselves to chaps, there are several reasons. First, it’s a good way to publish work by young writers who do not have a lot of material and get their work out there; second, it’s a good place in which to publish extended pieces, like the long poem by Norman Fischer that we published a year or so ago.

6. Is there/what is the guiding idea behind Tinfish? Are your goals primarily aesthetic? Political? Historical? Some other adjective entirely?

I’d say our goals are synthetic—we use all these words/concepts. I also want to argue for poetry that crosses the usual borders (between ethnicities, in particular). In Hawai`i, literature tends to be categorized as Asian American, white, Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and so on. I want to find points of contact between the work of writers who come from different places and cultures. Thus I see important links between writers like Craig Santos Perez, who writes about Guam, and Kaia Sand, who writes about Portland, Oregon, or between writers who use vernaculars, from Pidgin to medieval English.

7. What is the effect of being a regional press? What unique qualities of Pacific writing does Tinfish try to represent or support?

Sometimes even the Pacific seems too small and arbitrary, but it’s also vast! Again, we’re trying to find a place where Pacific rim and Pacific basin (the islands) can be included in a single journal issue, or between books on a single list.

8. How important are the visual and kinesthetic aspect of your work?

Very. The design work has been tremendous for years now, thanks to Gaye Chan and the designers she finds, mostly in Hawai`i. The ways in which designers see the work continues to astonish me. It’s as if the first response to the work is another work, and I love that.

9. How much attention do you pay to the book-as-object?

A lot. We can’t afford to spend a ton of money on the books, but still get wonderful designs because the designers are so enthusiastic, and work for no money.

10. What are your ultimate goals for Tinfish?

I think to continue doing what I’ve sketched out above, and what I talk about obsessively on my blog (, where I’m trying to write a poetics to what I’m publishing without comment. I’d like to reach out into the community more, involve teachers and kids, get the books used in schools, not only in university classes.

11. How do works you publish find you? Do you hold contests? Solicit? Pick form the slush pile?

They find me in various ways. Sometimes I solicit work by writers I’ve published already in the journal. Sometimes work arrives at my door. Sometimes I ask writers I know to tell their friends and colleagues to send me work. It’s gotten complicated. Often these days I get work from people whose poetry does not fit our categories, so take it as advice that you need to do some research on presses before you send your work to them.

I have one question in response to one of your responses, in which you wrote:

As an editor and publisher, I find inspiration these days in the classroom. I’ve published work by a number of my students over the years. I also find that teaching the work I publish makes it worthwhile; in some sense I am publishing books that I would like to teach, that my students need (or so I think), that will inspire them to write their own poems.

More and more as I attempt to send my work out to competitions and magazines, I find warnings for submitters saying that anyone who knows the judge/juror cannot submit their work to the competition, etc. This is not to say that I agree with these organizations that choose to separate teacher and pupil/those connected to the one making the Big Decisions, but do you feel comfortable publishing the work of your students? Is it as simple as “I believe in what they’re saying and want to provide a platform for their work”?

Good question, one that I’ve thought about a bit.  I refuse to have competitions because I don’t like them for many reasons (they cost someone money, they involve getting a judge to pick something that you might not want, etc.).  But one of the purposes of Tinfish  has been to publish work from Hawai`i and to send it outward from here (as well as bringing work here that wouldn’t get here otherwise).  So to publish student work strikes me as necessary to this project.  When I can’t publish a student’s work, or don’t feel moved to do so, I offer as much advice as I can about where the student might send it for consideration.  So there haven’t been any big problems (or scandals!).


Diana Arterian was born and raised in Arizona. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she is pursuing her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. She holds an MFA in poetry from CalArts, where she was a Beutner Fellow.
Diana is creator and Managing Editor of Ricochet, a publisher of poetry and prose chapbooks. Her own chapbook Death Centos was recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse, and her writing has appeared in DIAGRAMH_NGM_NPANKTwo Serious Ladies and The Volta, among others.

Emily Kiernan likes old things and is interested in disasters. Her work has been featured in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, decomP, Redivider, JMWW, and other journals. She lives in California with her man and her dog. More information can be found at